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Eton Logbook

Tobias Hill

 

T  his diary was published in large part by The Guardian, a few months after I undertook the residency in 2007.

Sunday 28th January, 2007

I visit Eton for the first time in midwinter. My train arrives early and I kill time in a pub by the station, my luggage heaped around me. I’ve brought far too many things for a two-night stay, clothes I haven’t worn in years (my wedding shoes; a selection of my father’s ties) and a needless haul of books, as if I expect to have to prove myself, my trade, the purpose of my visit.

It is all nerves. It grates on me but there it is. The pub is almost empty and I am ridiculous, fortifying myself with a half of stout, my corner in turn fortified with excess baggage.

I am nervous as a boy on his first day of school. There was a boy on the train, in fact, coming back after a weekend at home in London. His father was with him, and now and then made game attempts at conversation, but the boy was sunk in gloom. He looked sea-sick: school-sick. I expect my own school was nothing like this one of his (which calls itself a school in private, a college in public), but I recognised that nausea. I would take more comfort in the familiarity if I didn’t feel something of the same myself.

The purpose of my visit: I have been invited to become Eton’s fourth Writer in Residence. My tenure will not begin for another month, and will only last a fortnight, but it promises to be intensive. The college is large, with more than fourteen hundred boys, and over the course of the residency I will see most of them. I will be living here during the week. A room has been found for me near the Burning Bush (which is a streetlamp, it seems) and The Tap (which is - can this be right? - the boys’ private pub, the sixth-formers having a ration of two pints a day). From nine to five and on into the evenings I will be giving readings and lectures, speeches and classes. I don’t expect to feel out of my depth with regard to my duties, but I feel already that I am out of my natural environment. I know what I expect of Eton, but already I expect my expectations to be dashed. Even Windsor looks odd to me, unexpectedly quiet, the castle looming over everything.

At any rate, it has been felt best that I come to stay now in order to acclimatise. Or to get to know the boys. Or perhaps to be tested. Whichever it is, I’ll find out soon enough…


In the event I am welcomed with amazing grace. Those first two days the masters are cordial at worst, kindly by default, and the boys listen hungrily and with wide eyes and open minds. On Monday night a tenth of their population turn up to listen to poetry of their own volition. I can’t help but be gladdened by them. There is a part of me - a chipped old part - that would like to help it.

There are no gates. You cross the Thames and Windsor gives way to Eton. At first the transition seems seamless. Only gradually does it become apparent that Eton isn’t a real town. It is a school incognito. The hairdressers on the high street advertises only boys’ haircuts, the newsagent has a disproportionately large stock of raspberry bootlaces. One shop sells nothing but reading lamps. The younger masters live above and behind the shops: their elders are more grandly housed, nearer the school’s environs.

Tuesday night, on the way home to Cricklewood, I find it isn’t the boys who have left the deepest impression on me, nor the masters, but this sense of gatelessness. How alarming it would seem in London - a school without fences. Nothing to keep the perverts out! Nothing to keep the hoodies in! My own school - I walk past it often - has two sets of gates now, like a castle or a prison, with cameras mounted out of reach above them. There was a stabbing outside them just last year, the knifeman, as always, from another school.

It is unexpected, Eton’s gatelessness, and all the more so because it is so distinct from the world around it. Physically it is beautiful. It resembles one of the older Oxbridge colleges, but it retains an atmosphere of otherwordliness, of ivory towers, that the universities have now almost entirely lost. Despite the tourists and townspeople who wander freely through it, it is as self-contained as a Himalayan pocket kingdom, or an ecosystem held in a water-drop. But the kingdom has no mountain walls, the water-drop no surface tension.

By the station, as I leave, I see a road sign pointing the miles to Legoland and Slough. Eton is a Legoland too, an artifice where everything works smoothly, seemingly smoothly, according to its own laws, and quietly as the rain on its limestone.


Monday 26th February

Hey my love. Missing you like Jiminy (whoever he is; wasn’t he a cricket?). My guest room is roomy and has all the mod cons but hasn’t been redecorated since the 70s - and I boiled a pan of milk at lunch and it went all over the electric hob, drip dribble drip…smells fine now but I need to find a way of getting the insides clean or the whole place will be festering by morning.

Went to the shops this pm and got some supplies - a chicken and a loaf, coffee, milk (…), beer. Did I say I was missing you? Everyone’s nice enough here, but I don’t think any of them would fall asleep on the sofa as beautifully as you do.

Extracts from the Fixtures booklet for Lent term:

- p.24, Masters’ Surnames:

Chirnside, Daurge, Oliphant-Callum, Ripper, Scragg.

(even Molesworth would be scared of that lot)

- p.27, School Officers:

Ninth Man in the Monarch (Pearmund).

Keeper of the Field (Wushishi).

Keeper of Karate (Lupprian).

- p.29, Societies:

L’Imagination au Pouvoir.

Rock Music.

Stockbroking.

Cheese.

p.119, School Rules: ‘A boy may only use a bicycle at School with the written permission of his House Master and this is granted only under special circumstances…No boy may drive a car in or around Eton…No boy may sell any item of property worth more than a maximum amount as laid down from time to time (currently £20). Similarly no boy may borrow a greater sum…Credit with local tradesmen is forbidden.’


Lent Fixtures is bound in hymnbook green. It is full of arcane titles and rituals. There are rules in it which read like incantations. Is there actually a poetry to them? Eton College has been here for a long time - more than half a millennium. It was more than a century old before Shakespeare was born. Something accrues to ritual when it lasts so long. It might be power but it could just as well be called poetry. Certainly there is a poetry to Eton. It is hard to be here and deny that. It’s the poetry that’s so seductive.

There is nothing seductive about the lactic mire of the electric oven. The Hodgson Guest Suite is more or less as I emailed Hannah. Roomy puts a gloss on it, applied slapdash in the hope of luring her up for the night, but it is roomy; cavernous and utilitarian, everything foursquare and scrubbed to the quick. All the mod cons was an estate agent’s way of putting it, too: all cons are present, but the mod is that of a bygone decade. Vinyl seats, flaked white goods, ironing board (though maybe all normal people have ironing boards; maybe it’s just crumpled writers who don’t). Marmoleum.

Here and there, too, traces of earlier ages. The handsome fireplace is boarded up and buried under archaeological superimpositions of white paint. In the back of a kitchen cupboard, with the coasters, is a framed portrait of Rupert Brooke. There is a cassette library in a burgandy leatherette travelling case. Inside lie Frank Sinatra and The Sounds of the Fifties. There is no machine left to play either. There is old glass in the windows, wavery, settling with time into its framed diamonds and octagons.

What is that atmosphere? I can practically smell it. It’s the holiday short-let and the house of the warder who put me up once during an interview for a prison residency. It’s the mild and comforting unpleasantness of order.

The tone of the boarding school. That’s what it is.


Tuesday 27th

Well here I am, sitting in the Seminar Room waiting for boys with poems. No one’ll turn up tonight because they only heard about it 15 minutes ago and dinner’s cooking, but here I must sit anyway…Think of the money, my son, think of the money.

Big discussion in the English dept staffroom today about biscuits. First beak comes in mournfully eating a custard cream. It’s the first custard cream he’s eaten in four years. It’s the stress that’s got him going again. He was going to give up alcohol or biscuits and alcohol was a nonstarter so it was biscuits, but now look at him, stuffing his face.

Second beak says he prefers digestives. Third says come on, digestives are only edible because they fulfil the most basic functions of a biscuit, and by the time you’ve got one out of the packet you might as well eat it anyway. Fourth beak brings up the New Biscuits. What New Biscuits? New Biscuits? Oh yes indeed, check the cupboard, mate. Choc-choc-chip digestives, with an intriguing and pleasantly pitted texture. Second beak mutters that the New Biscuits sound like an improvement on the current biscuit regime. Perhaps a motion should be put forward to restock the communal biscuit tin with choc-choc-chip digestives instead of custard creams?…

(And by this point biscuits are becoming a borderline political issue. Things very quickly become political in the English staff room. There’s all kinds of stuff going down, nightmarish acidic office stuff that I haven’t been in contact with in a decade. Eton may be a Legoland, but the English dept is a Legoland within a Legoland, or a riddle wrapped in an enigma, or a Hobnob sandwiched in a Wagon Wheel...there’s lots of wrapping, that’s for sure, and it’s not all fun and games when you get down to it).

…Christ, six boys turned up after all. It’s almost 8.00. I should get out before they lock up. I’m starving. My chicken is calling to me from the Hodgson Guest Suite. Call tonight, love, before these people send me crackers.


The old masters - beaks - are alarming at range. Midmorning, every day, they assemble at Chambers to discuss business. In their cloaks they have the look of carrion birds. The tall ones are hunchbacked vultures and the little ones are rooks. There is a sharpness wrapped in shabbiness, a hunger couched in disinterest. Those who talk to me are unerringly kind (and it is a kindness to talk to me, a wallflower in a hall full of ballroom dancers). To signal a desire to converse they hang on one anothers’ sleeves. To applaud they stamp their feet. Unless they have mutual business they do not acknowledge one another at all. They are watchful as a parliament of crows.

It is one of the more archaic of Eton’s rituals, this business of Chambers. There is a secrecy about it which feels more than a little Masonic. Outsiders are rarely admitted. To the boys, too, it is a mystery. They are not allowed to witness the proceedings, but wait in the street if there is a beak they should be seeing. A crowd of them loiters there every morning, rain or shine, schoolwork clutched in their arms. Townspeople move around them as they go about their ordinary lives.

The boys are angels. Of course they aren’t. It’s just London that makes them seem that way. They were skittish in one class because one of them had been suspended (rusticated, they say) for calling his housemaster a Fucking Jewish bastard. Another wrote about the time he was sent home for getting drunk and pissing on the floor of a friend’s bedroom.

But they listen. Have I ever been in a place where 150 boys would give up a pleasant evening of TV (or pissing on carpets) to listen to poetry? One stopped me in the street today to say it had been a good reading. Already it was a month ago. Others cross the road to ask me questions - some thoughtfully polite, some genuine - about my short stories, novels, poems. On the score of boys I have no illusions. Enough of me is still boy to know how wretchedly brutal we can be. But I know what it is to be a London boy. A Comprehensive boy. Surely these children are more childlike and more gentlemanly than I ever was, or could have been.


Wednesday 28th

I’ve been doing Jabberwocky with the boys. Not Jabberwocky in English - they’ll have done that to death - but in Romanian. It’s a fair bet none of them will understand Romanian, and none of them do, which is my evil plan. Baffled by the language, they have nothing but the poetry to turn to. They latch onto it like starving men, tearing it into its mechanical parts as if poetry is the staff of life. Carroll’s music is still there; the translation is an old one, and very good.

They approach the task with an avidity that catches me by surprise. Not for the first time I feel grateful for their interest. Privately I am also entertained. The boys treat the mysterious poem as a sport, a riddle to be broken, a Da Vinci code…though unless I nudge them in the necessary direction they’re more interested in the language than the anatomy of poetry. Is it Finnish, sir? Is it Pennsylvanian (meaning Transylvanian)? Is it Orc-Speak?

To another pride of them I throw Paul Muldoon’s poem, Why Brownlee Left. Once they’ve picked apart the poetry I turn them towards the insoluble narrative. Brownlee disappears from his fields, leaving behind his ploughing horses, Like man and wife. The boys are thrown. How can horses be like man and wife, sir? Are they married? I say that yes, plough-horses can be married: can they tell me how? They lapse into an intense silence which is finally broken by another question from one po-faced fourteen year-old; Sir, do they have a stable relationship?

I go into Windsor for teabags and the nicotine chews to which I am rapidy becoming addicted. The bridge is crowded with tourists taking pictures of cygnets. The town beyond radiates from the castle, sustained by those who visit it as they were once contingent on its security. The steep streets are full of blue-chip chains and gimcrack shops with wince-making names (Wooden You Believe It; Kitchen Kapers). On the way back to my bachelor suite I take a look at Eton High Street by daylight to be sure, but it’s true: there are no chains and almost no kitsch. It’s not only that there’s no Starbucks or Tesco Metro, there’s no Wooden You Believe It either. There is a shop selling toy battle tanks and air rifles (Spend £50 on an Air Soft gun: get completely free a Gloch 17 chrome spring pistol), another selling Masonic playthings, a branch of Coutt’s, and some desirable but wildly overpriced antiques.

As I reach the old archway that leads to my rooms I see the party of tourists again. They have moved on from the swans and are congregating outside the cathedral-sized college chapel. They’re taking footage of the boys, jostling for position. The boys themselves look as oblivious as the swans, unruffled in their collars and tails. But of course they’re not. They’re not unchanged by observation, any more than the swans are.


Thursday 1st March

I have a supper invitation from one of the beaks, and the private early evening writing visitations are rushed in consequence. Seven boys turn up, most with poems in progress for the junior Verse Prize. The theme I’ve set for this is Home, thinking this will throw off sparks from those who see so little of it. I am wondering, too, if any of them will interpret Eton as home. (Only one considers the issue. For the rest, home is still home: Eton is their world a large).

I hurry back to the guest suite, throw off my suit, throw on ordinary clothes. No one wears cloaks and tails after hours and it’s a relief, anyway, to be out of Sunday best. I haven’t worn a tie here (though I’ve brought some for emergencies), partly because I hate that feeling of being bottlenecked and partly because I suspect I’ve forgotten how to knot one, it’s been so long. I don’t feel a need to rebel against the dress codes (that isn’t my rebellion to fight) but I see that others do. Eton is full of small acts of sartorial mutiny, the male equivalents of the schoolgirl’s short-hemmed skirt and non-regulation earrings. The top boys - some with the titles I emailed to Hannah - are permitted to wear coloured waistcoats, and they exploit that freedom to the max. Their waistcoats are bird-of-paradise displays, just as otherworldly as the collars and tails they are set against. One bears a gigantic skewed ace of spades on a green baize background; another is tricked out in leopardskin, a third in what resembles gold lamé flock wallpaper.

The beaks have their own furtive means of self-expression. Some of the younger ones are groomed and coiffed to a pitch that most British men would find effete. Several wear red socks. The first time I notice them I remember a family friend - an old Etonian - who wears them too. I’d always thought that was a political statement, but now I wonder. Are red socks a secret handshake, a mark of Etonhood, of an allegiance to the place both claimed and disclaimed? And having seen one pair I’m noticing them all over the place, a conspiracy of smallclothes. I turned on the TV late last night and caught a programme about Keynes and the British war debt. Keynes was at Eton, and so I suspect was the high-powered presenter, because there were the red socks, merry and surreptitious under his pressed pinstripes.

Supper is well-fuelled and high-octane. Five boys have been invited, to dine and later to read their work. They are dressed scruffily, not in imitation of any particular trope but with a jeans-and-sweatshirts consistency that echoes their daytime uniformity. The food (boeuf bourgignon, greens and mash, chocolate cake) is served with sherry and wine. The writing is better than I expected, better than I hoped for, and all of it is read with a swish and confidence that I am noticing is characteristic of Etonians.

Afterwards the beak and I linger over whiskies. We talk about the college library (which houses wonders: a Guthenberg bible, a first folio Shakespeare, the original much-corrected manuscript of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), and about a boardgame the beak has invented, The Eton Game, which I’ve seen for sale in the high street.

The object of The Eton Game is to become a top boy. This is achieved through simultaneous success in four fields; Sport, The Arts, Schoolwork and Society. A second version is in the pipeline in which Eton is replaced by Britain and the collegiate locations on the board by national equivalents. I roll home mightily amused by the thought that success in real life can be achieved in the same way as at Eton; that weird, otherwordly Eton could be a microcosm for twenty-first century Britain.

Only after I turn out the light does it occur to me that I might be wrong after all. That the game, the beak and Eton itself might be right.


Friday 2nd

Quiet in here…has someone been arguing? enquires the first beak, sweeping into the sunlit staff room. Not arguing, says the second beak tartly, Just basking, like cats in a cattery.

I’m out of the habit of clean living. It isn’t so much the regimen - the timetable, the ironing, the daily shaves which leave me grey-mugged and snick-necked - as it is the sense of being watched. No one is safe. The beaks watch the boys, the boys watch the beaks, and the tourists and locals watch them all, like film-buffs scouring a costume drama for error; the wrong pistols, the wrong cravat, the extra in his Reeboks on the set of Pride and Prejudice.

Critical regard. The claustrophobia of it is allayed for me - I have my guest suite if I feel the need to bolt. But for the boys it must feel inescapable, and for the masters nearly so. There is a pursed-lips, sucked-breath quality to it, too. It is the stifling whisper of tradition perpetuating itself.


Monday 5th

Internal college emails:

Thank you to the persons who provided the lovely Cake for the junior field game match…

Tomorrow: Slough Quaker meeting to give thanks for the abolition of the Slave Trade Act…

More Fencing Absentees.

Spaniel Found: Any takers?

I have some sixth-formers for longer stints this second week, and want to get them out of the classroom to study strangers (by which I mean, ordinary people). This is proving difficult. The boys are not allowed over the bridge into Windsor without special permission, and are not permitted to be at large in Eton in school dress during teaching hours. I mention to the head that I’ve done this exercise with borstal boys and he grimaces. Borstal boys, yes, well…you may find Eton boys rather more of a handful.

Eventually the resistance relents: I can shepherd the boys as far as the Windsor footbridge, from whence we can fish for people. The College provides each boy with a notebook, each one painstakingly labelled Tobias Hill Perception Pad, and a pencil; ostensibly these are for writing, but they are so sharp they could easily be used for self defense in a pinch.

We meet in Lower School, one of Eton’s oldest classrooms. Every surface - desks, columns, shutters, railings - is etched with ancient graffiti. An Etonian who goes on to Kings College Cambridge still has the right to come back here and carve his own name alongside those of Walpole and Shelley (later the headmaster tells me he’s lenient on this; if any parents are prepared to pay for it, he’ll see their boy’s name engraved). There are deep grooves here and there too, along which the boys once raced drops of ink: some of these go so deep that whole hunks and heels of oak have fallen away.

I explain the plan. The boys look crestfallen. Sir, we’ll get beaten up, says one gigantic lad. It is all I can do not to laugh. By the time we get to the bridge, though, they are more shy than fearful, and even the caution soon gives way to excitement.

Privately I have been entertaining the hope that they will have the chance to turn the tables on a touring party, but it is too early for tourists. A dustman passes with his cart and they all scribble frantically. One approaches a man in shades to ask if he can check the colour of his eyes, and I begin to worry on their behalf, that in their artlessness they may have something to fear after all.

The second time I take the boys out that concern is qualified. We have hardly sat down when I hear nervous laughter. A man - not big, but stocky - is leaning into the boys’ faces, firing off urgent questions. I don’t step in until he begins to slap them - heavy, half-amicable shoulder-slaps that rock them where they sit. When I stop beside him he looks up at me sharply. Jesus, he says, I thought you was meaning to hit me! ; and there is an angry, fearful light in his eyes that says he does think just that, or that the thought of violence has been uppermost in his mind.

I move him away towards the railing and we talk for a quarter hour - about the English, the Jews (You’ve a bit of black in you; what is that?), Palestine and Eton (You’ll know Cameron’s lot are all your people, he says, making a dishonarary Etonian of me), while the boys get on with their fishing, though on the walk back their questions are all about the man, their curiosity edged with adrenaline.

I am invited to a third literary group this evening. The boys are going home to their houses as I get ready, striding or skulking back to their rooms, triumphantly or disconsolately, their tails flapping.

It is a costume drama out there. There is a vulnerability to them all, boys and beaks both. They teeter on the ridiculous. If Eton were any more self-conscious the whole edifice would begin to fall apart. And how can it not be self-conscious, when so many eyes are upon it?

Not for the first time, it comes to me that it is an extraordinary experience to be here. Even a prince would feel it (and they are princes, some of these boys). It isn’t the beauty of it, or the wealth - those are things these boys may well find elsewhere. It is the gateless otherness. I wonder if that is what will come back to haunt them, even those who live out their lives in palaces. How long will they carry that invisible imperative, Don’t cross the bridge?

It must be very easy to love or hate. There was an article put up in one classroom, written by an old-boy-turned-celebrity, who had evidently loathed Eton all his life. I thought it was put here for the boys to hate in turn, but that assumes that Eton is something they love, or that their love could be so uncomplicated as to preclude hatreds of its own.

It is a privilege for me to be here too. And how that word rankles. Privilege! What a sour taste it has in the mouth. I am as accustomed to hate the idea of it as the man on the bridge, the one with the fists in his pockets and the smell of morning drink on his breath. I think of the boys all around him, in their coats and tails. All of them keeping to the bridge, as if there is some invisible barrier between them and the world beyond it. As if they are tagged.


Monday 12th

The Junior (Home) and Senior (Jealousy) Verse Prizes have run their course, as I have myself. I am back at Eton for the award ceremony, the last of my residential duties.

I arrive early with Hannah, who has managed to grab an afternoon away from work. We see the sights, dipping into Lower School, Chapel, and the college library. There has been some renovation done to the old school recently, in the course of which a mural has been discovered, a painting of masters and boys, one of the oldest images of a schoolroom in the world (and also one of the earliest portrayals of corporal punishment): but the room is locked when we find it, and our opportunity lost.

Later there are drinks, and dinner, and finally the ceremony itself. The boys have turned out in force again, and with their help the evening goes off well. In the morning our host drives us as far as the Windsor footbridge. We walk on out of Eton, lugging luggage, hurrying for the train. Then we are off, through Staines, through Feltham, the train late into London, but into London all the same, the city spreading out below the tracks, dirty and lovely and limitless.



© Guardian Newspapers 2007

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